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  • Nate Adams

'The Boys in the Boat' review: George Clooney directs another soulless drama

Courtesy of MGM Studios


For as good an actor as George Clooney can be, most of that charisma never seems to be replicated whenever he steps behind the camera. Ever since the A-lister helmed 2005 Oscar darling “Good Night and Good Luck,” his directorial efforts have been less than convincing. From his awkward 1920’s American football comedy “Leatherheads,” to last year’s mundane sci-fi drama “The Midnight Sky,” (let’s forget “Suburbicon” even exists), Clooney is nothing if not consistent. In this case, consistent just happens to mean mediocre. Enter his latest effort, “The Boys in the Boat,” a stoic sports drama that never rises above TV-movie-of-the-week fodder. A film that has no sense of rhythm or identity despite it having fool proof inspirational source material. You don’t need to reinvent the sports drama formula to have success, in fact, it’s really not that difficult (look at what “Air” did earlier this year) which makes the final product, as lifeless and boring as it is, all the more confounding. 

“The Boys in the Boat” tells the true story of how nine athletes from the University of Washington manage to compete for gold at the Berlin Olympic games circa 1936. Along the way, the crew silenced all the naysayers, including Ivy league rivals and, yes, Nazi’s, but screenwriter Mark L. Smith, adapting the novel from Daniel James Brown’s bestselling novel, gives you the SparksNote version of what happened. Joel Edgerton is decent playing the stern, gruff coach Al Ulbrickson, who would make the insane decision of sending the JV squad to the games rather than the seniors and then scoffs at anyone who dares questions his instincts. 

Callum Turner plays Joe Ratnz, a character that, too, gets the skimpish Wikipedia treatment, as he evolves from struggling financially to securing a coveted slot on the rowing team without any prior experience. He’s Clooney’s muse in this picture, shouldering most of the emotional levity, including a budding romance with Hadley Robinson’s Joyce Simdars that’s about the only steady thing in the film; and an awkward, underdeveloped side plot with his deadbeat dad who randomly shows up after he starts having success on the rowing team. It’s almost like Clooney can’t resist a good cliche when he sees one. 

Nevertheless, the remainder of the rowing crew is made up of a crop of unrecognizable faces (Sam Strike, Thomas Elms, Jack Mulhern, Luke Slattery, Wil Coban, Bruce Herbelin-Earle, Tom Varey, and Joel Phillimore) and Clooney gives them zero chemistry or camaraderie to build upon. It’s baffling someone could try and tell an underdog story and then fail at establishing the basic fundamentals of teamwork. There’s minimal strife or conflict among the squad and we never see them endure any real hardship. It’s difficult to root for a group of people the filmmakers themselves don’t seem to care about. 

“The Boys in the Boat” desperately wants to be a harbinger of old-school studio moviemaking, the type of low-stakes Oscar bait people devoured thirty years ago. It might find moderate success on the backbone of its patriotic themes and having Clooney in its corner certainly doesn’t hurt, but folks who show up might wonder how such an incredible story could feel so empty. 

Grade: D+ 

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT opens in theaters nationwide on Christmas day. 


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